This is a love story. It started with Guatemalan boy named Felix, born with a birth defect in January 2016. It’s blossomed into a great big, bubbly, joyous story that involves hundreds of people in the community of Dexter.
Recent events were so amazing, it’s likely there will be a team of Dexter volunteers going back to Guatemala to assist some of Felix’s people living in difficult conditions.
Here’s how that happened. Felix was born with encephalocele, which occurs when a fetus’ skull fails to close completely during gestation. This allows brain fluid to leak from the brain, forming a fluid-filled cyst. In Felix’s case, the cyst grew between his eyes, completely covering one eye.
His mother, living in a primitive village outside Santa Cruz Barillas, heard on the radio about a medical clinic that might help him. Yes, he could be helped but not in Guatemala, so a charitable U.S. organization, Healing the Children, made arrangements for him to be treated pro bono at the C. S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor. They also arrange for host families to care for the children during their visits.
“Leigh got a call, probably in the winter of early 2017, asking if we would be a host family for Felix and she said yes,” said Dr. Matt Hook, senior pastor at Dexter United Methodist Church. He and his wife began serving as Healing the Children host parents 14 years ago.
“At that time, a host-family went through a crisis and couldn’t host a little girl named Sarah from Guyana any longer. They called our church to see if we knew a family who could host her. We had four kids in 1st-5th grades, and said, ‘Why not us?’ Sarah was with us for five months, as her bladder was on the outside of her body,” Hook said.
Felix arrived in Michigan about midnight on July 24, 2017. His first doctor’s visit was Aug. 2 and the surgery to remove the cyst and repair his skull was Sept. 1 at Mott Hospital.
“After we got Felix home, Leigh had a feeling something wasn’t right, and Felix did have to return to Mott for a second surgery in mid-September. He was very sick, spent time in ICU and was released from Mott on Oct. 2,” Hook added. “Leigh did most of the care-giving when Felix was with us. The doctors did the miracles. It wasn’t me. His mom may have taken the most suffering step in letting him go on a plane to a place she could never imagine,” Hook said.
Before and after surgery, the Hooks took Felix to church and the church took to Felix. He toddled all over the place, in church and in Dexter. His family descends from the Mayan people are naturally very short. Though shy at first, Felix warmed up quickly.
One of the funniest stories happened when Leigh discovered, two 2 months after Felix arrived, that he didn’t speak Spanish! Rereading his forms, she saw that his family’s language was Q’anjob’al, which is a dialect of Mayan people. All those baby books in Spanish and all of Matt’s preschool Spanish words meant nothing to the little guy. Q’anjob’al is a language with many clicking sounds and “X’s,” so the Hooks gave up and began speaking and teaching him English.
Matt Hook is active on Facebook and shared Felix’s Dexter-life through photos, in the hospital, recovering, getting stronger, getting new glasses to help his weak eye, dressing up for Halloween, enjoying apple orchard visits, hugging the family dog, loving colder weather and being outside, dressed as a lamb in the church’s Christmas program, enjoying noisy baths, and smiling and laughing all the while.
The Hooks’ four grown children were all very involved in Felix’s life, as were many members of the Hook extended family. Church friends and volunteers helped with babysitting, meals, hugs and prayers. As he continued to heal and get stronger, it was time for him to go home. Felix flew back to Guateamala on Jan. 16, 2018. He had been in Michigan six months.
The Hooks sent a letter home with Felix, written in English and Spanish, that they’d like to continue to help the family. They received an email from a Guatemalan doctor who told them that Felix lived in extreme poverty.
Because of the primitive location of Felix’s village, there was no way to communicate. But after several months, Hook began seeking connections to people who might know about Felix. One social worker in Barillas, Juanita Pascual, located via Facebook, knew his family and a connection was made. Described as a miracle worker, Pascual was a primary source of information prior to the trip.
Matt decided to go find Felix. He enlisted the help of Tom Snyder, who heads up DUMC’s mission’s programs, and has contacts around the globe. Through these contacts, they found people who knew of Felix. On Jan. 14 Hook and Synder flew from Detroit to Guatemala City, met up with Lester Lutin, of Iglesia Neuva Vision (New Vision Church), their host and travel guide.
He arranged and accompanied them on a flight to Hueheutenago on a 12-passenger plane, then expertly drove them seven hours over primitive dirt roads to the town of Barillas, which was located near Felix’s family home in La Libertad Village.
Barillas is home to a small children’s hospital, which employed social worker Pascual. Hands for Peacemaking Foundation, a non-profit organization that works to improve the lives of villagers in that region also is there and offered housing to the two Dexter men.
On their third day in Guatemala, Hook and Snyder, visited Felix’s home. They were accompanied by a translator and Juanita Pascual, Felix’s social worker.
This is from Hook’s Facebook post that day: “It was amazing to drive 35 minutes out of Barillas to a mountainside rainforest Mayan village, to a hut-home of several families in a jungle-like setting. To think God can find a way to reach this little boy and his family in the remotest place I have ever been is fascination and awe-inspiring.
“The hike in, the immensely primitive setting and way of life, the immense overwhelming gratitude of the whole extended family, their fascination with pasty white visitors, the humble love, the state of their home they opened to us and the social workers, the anticipation of hope and unspoken language all made their indelible marks on me.”
The reunion was joyous and emotional, especially for Felix’s mother, Faustina, who hugged on Hook, in sincere and heartfelt, gratitude, a very long time at that first meeting. Felix didn’t recognize Hook or Snyder during that visit. “He was only 2 years old when he left us,” Hook said.
At Felix’s village, the strong sense of community and looking after each other really touched Hook’s heart. “They are so very poor and so very vulnerable, but they are so very, very rich in love, joy and personal connections. They have a such joy and love in great poverty, and I wonder if that’s something many Americans need more of in our prosperity. When I prayed, everyone prayed out loud with me, even the children. This trip and all the people we me have changed me forever,” he said.
During the visit, Hook and Snyder accompanied Felix, his mother and grandmother to the hospital in Barillas for a checkup (he’s doing well), took a big birthday cake (something they’ve never had before) and celebrated Felix third birthday with his family.
“I’ve been thinking how one birth defect and one 17-pound little boy could lead to learning so much more of God’s grace than we otherwise would have known. Jesus calls us to bless others…but given what Jesus has done for me, what else would I WANT to do with my life? Offer it to something else? Something less? This is opening up a door in my life that hadn’t been opened all the way yet,” Hook said.
“Felix is the smallest in his family, but he opened the big blessings. As the littlest one in his village, he opened up wide the window for God to bless them and bless us and connect our worlds in such a great way. I would love to go back , and plan to,” he said.
Article written by Nancy Clay of DUMC